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October 22, 2003

Grasses

On most days when San Francisco and Oakland are swathed in pea-soup-thick dismal, I can stand in the sunshine on my front porch and watch the fog. It stops at the crest of the hill between our house and the freeway, a great white wall. When the fog parks itself at the top of the hill, our yard is buffeted by winds off the cold front.

I sometimes imagine the cloud bank is a glacier, sweeping oddly in from the west to scrape away the top of the Coast Ranges, the winds the same scouring arctic ones that bladed the Pleistocene periglacial tundra clean of all but grasses and hardy herbs. Mammoths grew fat on the herbs, dying out when the trees came back. Or perhaps the trees only came back after the mammoths died out: in the battle between tree trunk and elephant trunk, victory usually goes to the pachyderm.

Though the winds scour our front garden rather harshly this time of year, no mammoths benefit. (One overly large mammal does occasionally wrench trees from the soil here, but usually he just writes about them.) And the grasses prosper. A row of deergrass a.k.a. basketgrass a.k.a beargrass a.k.a Muhlenbergia rigens holds up the top of the retaining wall, flower stalks - used for baskets hereabouts and in the Sierra – pointing persistently downwind. Behind the Muhly, giant wild rye shines shocking blue gray, and is growing at a positively alarming pace. I planted a few thin stems this spring, and now have clumps a foot thick. This particular selection of wild rye, Elymus condensatus "Canyon Prince," grew wild on the California Channel Islands.

Behind that, the Pennisetum setaceum rubrum, a pretty red feather grass that’s nearly ubiquitous in the Bay area and which is frowned on by native plant purists: the green form is incredibly invasive. The red form, theoretically, sets no seed. I still wouldn’t have planted it, but Becky loves the way its tassels sway. I planted a clump of three together in spring, and they quickly filled all the available space: last weekend, I dug up two of them and moved them elsewhere iin the garden.

At some point, I’ll have to do the same with the Miscanthus "Morning Light," which is being sandwiched in between the Echium fastuosum and the Chiranthofremontia, with matilija poppies growing up in between.

And then there is the native red fescue, growing healthily enough along the sidewalk but without much benefit other than filling a blank spot - except when flowering, at which time it becomes a marvel, a minimalist Calder mobile of awn and lemma. And let me not forget to mention the Stipa arundinacea, a New Zealand grass that’s now exhibiting a lovely orange fall stem color

I remember twenty years ago, when I was working in a nursery in Washington, DC, ornamental grasses were just hitting the mainstream, and then only in the form of Festuca ovina glauca, the little mounding blue sheep fescue that you can now buy in six-packs at the local drug store. Now they’re everywhere, especially out here. A garden trend washed over the landscape, leaving little bits of itself behind. It’s rare now to see an entire garden done in blue sheep fescue, as one often saw in cosmopolitan areas in the late 1980s. Instead, the grasses have wormed their way in among the rest of the landscape.

Posted by Chris Clarke at October 22, 2003 03:13 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:
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decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs